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Famous folk music scholar Tran Van Khe dies aged 94
Nguyen Vinh
Thursday,  Jun 25, 2015,23:35 (GMT+7)

Famous folk music scholar Tran Van Khe dies aged 94

Nguyen Vinh

By Nguyen Vinh - The Saigon Times Daily

Professor Tran Van Khe - PHOTO: NGUYEN VINH

Professor Tran Van Khe, one of the greatest masters of Vietnamese folk music, died at the age of 94 at a hospital in HCMC on June 24 after nearly a month of suffering from multiple organ failures and severe pneumonia.

Professor Khe had spent his lifetime doing one mission: “Devoted to serving the traditional music of Vietnam to the last breath.”

He was born on July 24, 1921 to a family with four generations of composing folk music in My Tho City in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang. The talented professor got acquainted with folk music early in his life as his uncle, artist Nam Khuong, played music day by day by his mother. “The baby still in the womb was impregnated with the country’s folk music,” Khe wrote in his memoir.

Raised in a family full of musicians and artists, Khe familiarized himself to the world of traditional music in his childhood. At the age of eight, he learned to play dan co, the Vietnamese two-string fiddle, through his uncle Nam Khuong. Four years later, his aunt Tran Ngoc Vien guided him to play dan tranh, or the 16-string zither. When he turned 14, he played the drum.

In 1930, his mother died in revolutionary action. A year later, his father passed away. His aunt Vien then took the responsibility to take care of him and his two younger siblings.

At Truong Vinh Ky high school, Khe was a brilliant student. In 1941, he went to Hanoi to study as a medical student on a scholarship granted by the French government and the society of physical and moral intellectual improvement of Cochinchina.

In 1943, due to some problems, he returned to the south. He set up a music troupe with musician Luu Huu Phuoc to raise awareness of the country’s fate among young people.

In the book “Tinh dan toc trong am nhac Pham Duy & Tinh ban Duy-Khe” (Nationalism in music by Pham Duy and the friendship of Duy and Khe), published by Thoi Dai Publishing House in 2013, he said, “I always wanted to uphold my independent political views and did not want to join any parties or follow any religions. I devote my time and effort to researching, collecting, preserving and spreading the values of folk music.”

Between 1942 and 1949, he taught at schools in Saigon and Can Tho and at the same time, worked for Than Chung and Viet Bao newspapers.

In 1949, his revolutionary activities were revealed, so Khe went to France and started his long journey of studying and working there. Being good at languages and fluent in French and Chinese, he worked as a reporter and at the same time, performed Vietnamese folk music at restaurants to earn some money for his study at Pantheon-Sorbonne University, where he graduated from the faculty of international relations in 1951.

After three years of getting sick, he returned to school to continue his research on music and in 1958, he successfully defended his music doctoral dissertation at Sorbonne University about Vietnamese traditional music, which highlighted southern music and Hue royal music, along with two minor research projects, titled “Confucius and music” and “The place of music in Vietnam society.”

From the mid-1960s, he started to appear as an expert in Vietnamese music who taught and presented the music of Vietnam in Europe. From 1963, he worked as a teacher at the center for oriental music studies under the Music Insitute of Paris.

His son Professor Tran Quang Hai and daughter Tran Thi Thuy Ngoc also cooperate with the center to spread Vietnam’s southern folk music.

Professor Khe also worked at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), going up from the position of an attaché to a research director specializing in the language of Vietnamese music, compared Vietnamese southern folk music with chamber music of other countries in Asia such as China, Japan, North Korea and India, and was also chairman of the scientific council of the International Institute for Comparative Music Studies in Germany.

The professor was invited to give lectures at classes of the ethnic music faculty of Sorbonne University of Paris and many other universities in the world. Between 1968 and 1972, he focused on studying dramatic arts of Asia such as Peking opera of China, Noh and Kabuki of Japan, Pansori of Korea, and three genres of traditional opera in the northern, central, and southern regions of Vietnam – Cheo, Boi and Cai luong.

He won many prestigious awards for his researching and teaching traditional music, including the UNESCO International Music Council prize in 1981, Officer in France’s National Order of Arts and Letters in 1991, academician of the Europe Academy of Science, Literature and Art in 1993, Japan’s Koizumi Fumio Prize for Ethnomusicology in 1994, Order of Academic Palms in 1999, Lifetime Achievement Award in Music from the San Francisco – HCMC Sister City Committee in 2011, and the Phan Chau Trinh Phan Chau Trinh Cultural Award in 2013.

He presented nearly 200 research projects about the folk music of Vietnam and Asia as well as musical instruments in French and English in international and local newspapers. He also gave music performances and published CDs.

After 50 years of studying and working in Europe, he returned to Vietnam and started everything from scratch in HCMC in 2006. His apartment granted by the authorities at 32 Huynh Dinh Hai, Binh Thanh District since then had become a gathering place for artists and music researchers. There, hundreds of talk shows and performances about Vietnamese folk music have been hosted by the professor.

In his final years, he wrote two memoirs about his work and research on folk music and donated a library with documents about traditional music and musical instruments to HCMC.

He also left behind many talented students who are artists and researchers that play a key role in preserving and developing the traditional music of Vietnam.

During his treatment at Gia Dinh Hospital, Khe still made effort to devote to the country’s music development. In his will he says he wants all money donations at his funeral to be used to create a scholarship fund or assist researchers of Vietnamese traditional music.

“Through many ups and downs, I have learned innate talent is not enough and that we always have to learn and practice to gain good achievements.”

“In difficult situations, I always try to think long and hard to understand the problem. With a determination, all problems can be solved. When doing something, I always tell myself to do it with love for people, for the nation and for mankind.”

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